Lung Cancer Survivor's Uplifting Journey
In June 2014, Juanita Segura developed a persistent wheeze. An active participant in CrossFit, a healthy eater and non-smoker, the then 46-year-old Indiana resident consulted with her doctor, who diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed an inhaler. But, the wheeze soon turned into a horrible cough, and by October Segura couldn't complete a sentence without coughing. A pulmonary specialist prescribed a steroid, but Segura only got worse.
In November, she went to the local emergency room and received an unexpected diagnosis: stage 3b adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer.
The first thing that came to Segura's mind upon diagnosis were her five children. "I looked at the nurse and I said, 'I have five kids. You mean I'm never going to see my youngest daughter graduate high school, or get married? I'm not going to be there for their college graduations?' That's when I broke down," she said.
Despite her fears, Segura was determined. "I knew then I had a choice," she said. "I could either get angry and bitter, and be negative, or be positive and strong and fight this."
Segura and her family traveled from their home in Indiana to a treatment center in northeast Illinois. There, she underwent genetic testing, and began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation in the beginning of December. But, her genetic test results didn't arrive until late January and revealed that Segura's cancer was ALK-positive, a genetic mutation that makes the standard treatment she was receiving less effective.
Though non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, only about 5 percent of those diagnosed have the ALK-positive mutation. The mutation is most often seen in non-smokers who have the adenocarcinoma subtype, according to the American Cancer Society.
Unfortunately, Segura had already completed a cycle of chemo/radiation by the time her test results arrived. Frustrated by the delay that led to unnecessary treatment, Segura turned to a medical center in a different state for a second opinion. It was there that the doctors told her she should return home and seek treatment in her own backyard at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, whose lung cancer experts are some of the best in the country.
Segura flew home on a Wednesday and was able to see a specialist at UChicago on Friday. Her first appointment gave her hope and reassured her that she had come to the right place.
"My dad died of cancer and he went to the University of Chicago's hospital 15 years ago," she said. "I'll never forget how well they treated my dad; they fought and fought and tried everything to save him. They gave him additional time so he could meet my 15-year-old. She was born, and my dad died a week later."
At UChicago, Segura began treatment with crizotinib, a protein kinase inhibitor. After about three months on the drug, she learned that the tumor in her lungs had disappeared. However, her doctors discovered that the cancer had metastasized, or spread, to her liver. Segura was put on the drug ceritinib, an ALK inhibitor for metastatic non-small cell lung cancer. Within three more months the spots on her liver had shrunk significantly.
Segura now sees Jyoti Patel, MD, professor of medicine, for follow-up treatments, and she continues to take ceritinib for maintenance therapy. Patel and her team are leading the way in investigating new therapies for ALK-positive patients. This effort involves several open and upcoming clinical trials, including one trial that combines an ALK inhibitor with immunotherapy.
"It is important to get genetic testing as a first step because this information significantly impacts our ability to generate the best and most personalized treatment plan," Patel said.
Though Segura had never considered herself religious, throughout her journey she found strength in a newfound faith in God.
"I always had hope," she said. "I never gave up on hope. Even though I had fear, even though I had doubts and uncertainty, I always held onto hope and his word." Segura also committed to positive thinking, speaking affirmations like "I am cancer free" out loud to herself every day.
Segura continued her CrossFit workouts during her treatment, and has since opened up her own CrossFit gym in Griffith, Indiana, where her story inspires others. An active member of the LUNGevity Foundation, Segura helps organize events to advocate for lung cancer patients and raise money for research. She recently hosted a Zumbathon at her gym, and is organizing a Breathe Deep 5K in nearby Highland, Indiana, on May 20.
"I tell people just because you hear the word cancer, don't give up," she said. "You get up and fight!"
In November 2016, Segura shared her inspiring story on the Dr. Phil show and traveled to New York for interviews with more than two dozen media stations.
"I want, not only lung cancer survivors, but all cancer survivors to know there is hope," she said. "If my little story can save two or three people, or give them hope so they can fight too, then I'm happy."
You can follow Juanita's journey on Facebook by liking her page: https://www.facebook.com/juanitafightslungcancer/